David Coombs at All Souls Church (Screen shot from C-SPAN)

Pfc. Bradley Manning’s defense lawyer David Coombs spoke last night at an event at the All Souls Church in Washington, DC.  Billed as his first-ever public presentation, it was organized by the Bradley Manning Support Network.  Over one hundred people and numerous members of the press attended.

Coombs said that the defense was in the middle of argument on an “unlawful pretrial punishment” motion related to Manning’s nine-month detention at Quantico.  He briefly characterized what happened with Manning at Quantico:

…It’s fitting that we’re today at the end of the motion phase with a motion that really brought the world’s attention to this case. And that was how Bradley Manning was being treated. Brad’s treatment at Quantico will be etched in our nation’s history as a disgraceful moment in time. Not only was it stupid and counterproductive, it was criminal. An entire group of individuals, who I no doubt are honorable men and women, chose to turn a blind eye to how Bradley was being treated. Those who could effect change did not. They were more concerned about how the attention might be put on them if something happened to Brad, as opposed to what was their conduct doing to Brad.

But it turns out those same people care about something more and what they turned out to care about more was the media impact. And for that I must thank each and everyone here today. I must thank each and everyone who is listening or watching because, without you, change would not have happened. Your actions resulted in Brad being moved from Quantico to Ft. Leavenworth. Make no mistake about that…

It was an unequivocal acknowledgment from Coombs of the power of media and the public to frighten those in positions of power into stopping the abuse of Manning. But, that did not mean Coombs was going to freely take questions. He refused to take questions from the public and only took pre-approved questions from the press.

One of the questions he agreed to answer dealt with the fact that Manning had said he did not want the case to be tried in the “court of public opinion” from the witness stand last week:

…This public appearance is the exception for me. I believe that trying the case in the press is not the way to do representation of a client. And, Brad, at least from what he testified in [the hearing] didn’t want his case to be tried in the press either…

Coombs said Manning expressed this wish early on, and he would continue to respect it by not granting interviews. “Your focus has to be on your client and not on basically putting out facts to spin something your way in the press when that doesn’t achieve anything in the courtroom,” he added.

Coombs then pivoted to lauding the press and public: “What really matters is you the public being involved and being informed and that the press can do wonderful things—that’s why I’m happy to see them here today. And that’s what really resulted in Brad being moved in my opinion from Quantico to Ft. Leavenworth.”

This has become clear during the course of the “unlawful pretrial punishment” hearing. Actions through official channels were necessary and needed to be taken, but they did not ultimately bring an end to Manning’s treatment. The increased scrutiny that the Quantico Marine Brig received in the first months of 2011 is what created the space for Coombs to prevail in getting Manning transferred to Leavenworth.

Coombs and Manning have both indicated through comments that they have faith in the system of military justice in the United States. It makes sense that one would not want to try and litigate the case in the press or public to an extent that detracted from being able to argue the case properly in court, where it mattered. However, the statements about Manning that made it to the press—the details on what the confinement was doing to Manning—had little to do with the legal case itself and more to do with a profound abuse that was being committed by a Marine Brig with the complicity of the Marine Corps Headquarters, the Secretary of the Navy and even officials at the Pentagon.

The presented in court has shown there was a conspiracy to keep Manning in cruel confinement conditions to ensure that no person in the Brig would ever be in the position of explaining what had happened to Manning if he hurt himself. The problem, however, is that Manning’s psychiatrist told Brig commanders repeatedly he posed no risk to himself and the conditions were having “unintended consequences” on him.

The Brig commanders never took the psychiatrist seriously. If they thought the psychiatrist was bad at his job, they never replaced him so Manning could have a “better” psychiatrist that would return an assessment the Brig could trust and act upon.

Who was the media’s key source for information that began to rattle those in the chain of command? It was David House, whom Manning  added to  his visitors list when he arrived at the Quantico Brig.

From December 2010 to March 2011, House shared his concerns with media about how Manning was declining in his “mental” and “physical wellbeing.”

…His prolonged confinement in a solitary holding cell is unquestionably taking its toll on his intellect; his inability to exercise due to (prison) regulations has affected his physical appearance in a manner that suggests physical weakness.”

Manning, House added, was no longer the characteristically brilliant man he had been, despite efforts to keep him intellectually engaged. He also disputed the authorities’ claims that Manning was being kept in solitary for his own good.

“I initially believed that his time in solitary confinement was a decision made in the interests of his safety,” he said. “As time passed and his suicide watch was lifted, to no effect, it became clear that his time in solitary – and his lack of a pillow, sheets, the freedom to exercise, or the ability to view televised current events – were enacted as a means of punishment rather than a means of safety…

House acknowledged to the press that Manning was reluctant to discuss his treatment. This is because Manning, in restraints, always had two guards standing behind him. House’s visits (like all visits from family or friends) were recorded. Manning did not want to share what was happening in the Brig because it was against the military culture. A detainee was just not supposed to talk about his or her confinement. Clearly, Manning was fearful that if he gave House more details on his confinement it would end up in the press and the chain of command in the Brig would read about it and it could have adverse consequences.

From the stand on November 30, Manning told military prosecutor Maj. Ashden Fein that Coombs and he had arranged blog postings to counter what House was saying to the media. “We were going to hold the middle ground and try to get as many facts as possible and not these opinions.”

Manning stated he believed his confinement was not “necessarily accurate or portrayed in a slanted light.” He added he’s “more of a scientific person” and likes “things to be more factual.” And, “There can be some subjectivity that is inevitable in the world and society,” but he had wanted facts to be put on the table to “counter the wildness” that he was concerned about.

This attitude led Manning to take House off his visitors list. He was not happy that House was broadcasting that his condition was deteriorating to the world.

After looking over House’s statements to the press, it is hard to find the inaccuracies. Much of what House told the press has largely been affirmed through evidence and testimony presented by the defense in court over the past week. One can only presume Manning took issue with House’s very human reaction to seeing Manning in restraints. Knowing he was confined in his cell twenty-three hours a day, had restrictions against exercise or moving in his cell and had an hour at most to exercise during the day, House shared what he was feeling as he sat across from Manning during visits.

Manning probably worried these reactions were getting back to the Brig and could mean he would be in cruel conditions longer. However, that was during his Quantico confinement. Now, with Manning no longer in conditions like those he endured at Quantico, the defense and Manning should not forget what led to Manning being given some dignity while in pretrial confinement. They should not forget what agitated the government and pushed them to adjust how they were handling Manning.

The government intends to make an example out of Manning. The “aiding the enemy” charge is a clear indication of how the military prosecutors are carrying out a government effort to blaze a path for going after critics of the US government. Specifically, they want a legal route for clamping down on individuals who report classified or sensitive information on national security that may be read by members of a terrorist organization simply because they too have access to the Internet.

The defense hopes the judge will accept a conditional plea, where Manning takes responsibility for transferring some information to WikiLeaks and he is able to plead guilty to some “lesser-included offenses.” This could lead to a reduction in time Manning would do in jail if convicted, but there are no guarantees the judge will accept this plea, especially with the government refusing to support it.

This is not a typical military case. Presumably, if there are any shady back room dealings on the part of the government, the defense will put complaints on record before the judge. But, if that is not enough, the defense should make use of its blog—where it has been posting redacted versions of defense motions—to provide further details for the press and public of any extraordinary events in the case that might be transpiring. They should also make use of the Bradley Manning Support Network and allies. They should not only do triage privately to respond but should also communicate to the world what is happening so that the government is not permitted to commit an injustice without hearing opposition from the public.